DAWKINS AND THE MORALITY OF THE BIBLE

Article first published in Quadrant 436 (May 2007), 38-43

 

DAVID HODGSON[1]

Most of the published responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins have focussed on his atheism, and have either given general support to his ideas or else dismissed them as extreme and simplistic.  They have not given much attention to something I think is significant in the book, namely its clear and forceful criticism of the morality of aspects of major religions, including Christianity and Judaism, criticism that deserves to be taken seriously by reasonable adherents of these religions.

          I see this as a notable omission.  Many of the central stories of the Bible attribute to God and God’s followers actions of grossly immoral violence.  I do not believe the immorality in these stories has been adequately recognised by Christians and Jews; and in this article, I argue that this has serious implications and should be remedied.

          Another notable omission from responses to the book is any reasoned identification of weaknesses in Dawkins’ arguments for atheism; and in this article I also set out what I see as the three main weaknesses of his position.  I will start with this, to make it clear that my concern about the morality of the Bible is associated with respect for religion, not opposition to it.

 

Where Dawkins Is Wrong

Dawkins (pp13-14) adopts the following statement of atheistic belief by Julian Baggini:

Although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short, the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.

He goes on to assert his belief that ‘there is nothing beyond the natural physical world’.

Dawkins offers an evolutionary explanation for our moral values in terms of the advantages, for survival and reproduction of genes, of being prepared to adopt and follow moral opinions and attitudes.  But as Dawkins himself seems to recognise (pp270-272), to give an explanation of moral opinions and attitudes does not provide any justification for them.  Dawkins passes moral judgments, for example about the God of the Old Testament (pp227-250), in such a way as to suggest that his moral judgments are not mere opinions but have objective truth or validity; but what he does not see, or does not acknowledge, is that this requires an appeal to something beyond the physical and beyond evolutionary explanations.

          The question of whether moral judgments have any objective truth or validity is a controversial philosophical issue; but I firmly believe that at least some conduct is objectively wrong.  This is partly because of the universality of appeals to right and wrong, partly because of other reasons I will not go into here, and partly because I cannot accept that my belief that some conduct is wrong is just an opinion with no better foundation than evolutionary selection and/or culture.  To take an extreme example, I believe that, quite apart from what the law may say, it is wrong to torture a child for amusement.  I cannot believe this is just an opinion, and that all that could be said against someone who does such a thing and sees nothing wrong in it is that they are breaking the law, and their genes and/or culture must be different from mine and those of most people I know.  In relation to conduct as appalling as that, wrongness is I believe a matter of undeniable truth; and I challenge anyone who disputes this to put their hand on their heart and say, no, its wrongness is only a matter of opinion which can be explained by evolution and culture but has no other justification.

Now I’m not suggesting that conduct is wrong just because God forbids it.  It’s been said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted.  I disagree profoundly with that.  If our moral obligations depended on God’s commands, and nothing else, I would see no reason, other than prudential reasons, to obey those commands.  It could be said that, because God created us, we owe God gratitude and obedience; but then either the obligations of gratitude and obedience must themselves depend on God’s command, or they must be based on some moral imperative that does not consist entirely in God’s command.  If the former, then it’s a bootstraps exercise; and if the latter, then moral obligation depends on something in addition to God’s command.

What I do suggest is that moral imperatives are binding on us because of reasons underlying them, that the existence of these moral imperatives and reasons means there is something about the universe and/or our relationship to it that supports these imperatives and reasons, and that this something is beyond physical matter and physical laws.

So Dawkins’ failure to appreciate the need for something beyond the physical to justify his own moral judgments is the first of three major errors I believe he makes.

The second of these errors is his disregard of consciousness.  Scientists cannot yet explain what it is about brain processes that gives rise to conscious experiences such as visual and auditory experiences and feelings of pain, or what such experiences contribute to our choices and actions over and above information processing that could occur without them, as it does in computers.  Certainly, scientists don’t have the faintest idea how one might construct or program an artificial system such as a computer so as to have conscious experiences, much less to use them; and it would be absurd, even if it were possible, to use pain or any other feelings to motivate a computer to proceed in accordance with its program.  Many scientists try to dodge these problems by saying, quite wrongly in my view, either that computers are conscious, or that conscious experiences contribute nothing, that the brain’s information processing could just as well be carried out ‘in the dark’. 

In his book, Dawkins mentions consciousness in just one sentence, as a gap whose bridging might be seen as improbable (p140).  I believe consciousness is itself beyond the physical matter and physical laws that Dawkins claims are all that exist; and its emergence during the course of evolution requires the existence of something in the early universe that was conducive to its emergence, something which I believe must go beyond physical matter and laws as presently understood.  Whether or not that is correct, consciousness is a deep mystery, far far deeper than the emergence of life; so Dawkins’ disregard of consciousness is a major defect in his argument for atheism.

          My own view is that there is something fundamental about the universe that has to do with the potentiality for consciousness and the existence of moral imperatives, and also with the values of good and beautiful and the unfolding beauty of the universe itself.  I think it is reasonable to regard all this as indicative of a universe that is in some sense purposefully creative.

From that, it might be thought a small step to personify these features of the universe, so as to arrive at something like a traditional conception of a monotheistic God, as a kind of superperson existing either in the universe or apart from it, who created the universe and exercises some kind of control over it.  To take such a step may lead to ways of thinking about these features of the universe that are more inspiring than the vaguer and more abstract ideas I’ve been suggesting.  However, it is a step I cannot take, except to the extent of regarding a person-like God as a metaphor for a more subtle and elusive reality.

This leads me to what I say is the third major error made by Dawkins, namely his failure to recognise the inadequacies of language in dealing with matters near the limits of our understanding.  Language developed initially in dealing in a common-sense way with everyday matters, and it is in relation to such matters that statements generally have their clearest meaning and may be considered unambiguously true or not true.  But language is not limited to dealing in a straightforward way with everyday matters; and when language is applied to other than everyday matters, truth may only be a matter of degree.

I can give a simple example from twentieth-century science.  Prior to about 1900, scientists would have confidently asserted:

          All waves are periodic processes extended in space.

          No particles are periodic processes extended in space.

          Therefore nothing can be both a wave and a particle.

However, by 1930 it was clear that photons and electrons displayed wave-like properties under some experimental arrangements and particle-like properties under other experimental arrangements.  There was no single concept in our language that adequately expressed what they were; and the best description that could be given of them in ordinary language was that they were in a sense both waves and particles.  Apparent inconsistency did not prevent this from being the description in ordinary language that was closest to the truth; and according to the pioneering quantum physicist Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity, such inconsistent descriptions were acceptable in cases where the incompatible properties could not be displayed simultaneously.

Since our concepts and our language are inadequate for photons and electrons, it would hardly be surprising if they were also inadequate for God.  There are deep mysteries about the universe and about our place in it.  In relation to these matters, it is unrealistic to expect to be able, with our concepts and language, to express the reality in a straightforward way.  The best we can hope is to approximate to the truth by metaphor.  Because Dawkins fails to recognise that literal truth may be unattainable in relation to religious questions, he is far too ready to reject beliefs on the ground that they cannot be literally true, and to be dismissive of those who think otherwise, including theologians who strive to give adequate expression to religious ideas.

For my part, I believe religious beliefs can exemplify an appropriate attitude to our place in the universe and may qualify as helpful metaphors for what is purposefully creative about the universe.  It is sometimes claimed by atheists that it is hubristic for human beings to regard themselves as subjects of interest to an omnipotent God.  However, what I think is truly hubristic is to regard human beings (and in particular oneself) as the sole source and determinant of what is right and good, rather than as exercising powers of discovery and creativity in a context of respect for values that have claims upon them and are to some extent independent of them.  And religion has inspired many, perhaps most, of the greatest moral, artistic, literary, architectural and musical achievements of humankind.

 

Where Dawkins Is Right

But Dawkins is certainly right in his assertion that religions should not be immune from rational criticism.  We must be rational in making decisions as to what is right and what is wrong; and because beliefs on religious matters can have a strong bearing on these decisions, we must be rational in addressing religious questions, no less than in addressing any other questions that may be relevant to our conduct.  It is important that any ‘leap of faith’ to religious belief be consistent with rationally-held beliefs about the world and particularly about morality, and that any beliefs contrary to reasonable morality should be rejected. 

          Dawkins is also right in asserting that there are aspects of the stories and teachings of major religions that are immoral, and have the potential to encourage evil attitudes and actions; and that we should not be deterred by considerations of respect for religious beliefs from pointing this out and urging that it be recognised.  And he is right in asserting that it is not reasonable to support such teachings by appealing to the authority of holy books, the authority of prophets, the authority of great religious institutions or the consensus of large numbers of people.

          Holy books are said to be authoritative because they are inspired by God, and prophets are said to be authoritative because they are in communication with God.  Such arguments are flagrantly circular, seeking to prove the existence of a God that inspires holy books and communicates with prophets, by means of these supposed inspirations and communications.  They are also highly implausible.  There is no good reason to think that the authors of holy books or the prophets were other than human beings like us, relying for their beliefs on their own perceptions and reasoning.  If people today claim to be authoritative sources of religious truth because they are inspired by God or because they are in communication with God, their claims are rightly regarded with scepticism.  I see no reasonable basis for any different view concerning the authorship of holy books or the authority of prophets.  The only reasonable course is to assess their credibility in the same way as that of other texts and persons.

          As regards the authority of religious institutions and the consensus of large numbers of people, these may have been factors supporting the reasonableness of beliefs in historical times when there was a broad consensus on religious beliefs throughout whole communities, a consensus that was also in accord with the teachings of highly respected religious institutions which had a monopoly on learning and scholarship in those communities, and when there was little if any means of knowing much about other communities and institutions.  But today we know there is no consensus, and no good reason for giving particular weight to views promulgated by any particular religious institutions:  there are believers and non-believers, and among believers and religious institutions there are different and conflicting belief systems.  And what we now know about the history of great religious institutions can only inspire suspicion of their reliability as sources of religious wisdom.

          So what about the persuasiveness of the content of religious teachings?  Although there is much in the moral teachings of the religion with which I am most familiar, the Christian religion, that I find persuasive, there is also much in its teachings that I find unpersuasive and indeed appalling.  And the same is true of other religions, to the extent that I am familiar with them.  I will give some examples, commencing with a story that is common to three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, namely the story of Abraham and his son.

 

Abraham and Isaac

In the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22, referred to by Dawkins at pp242-43), God tells Abraham to offer his son for a burnt offering.  Abraham builds an altar, prepares wood for a fire, ties Isaac up, lays him on the altar, and takes a knife to kill him.  Only then, an angel tells Abraham not to harm Isaac, and Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket; and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of his son.

This story is apparently considered an example of meritorious sacrifice and obedience to God, carrying also the message that even if what God requires seems difficult to understand, God will make sure it turns out for the best.  To my mind, its message about both God and Abraham is abhorrent, and has the potential for great evil.

About God, it says that God expects obedience to God’s command to kill an innocent child, where there is no discernable reason for this except that it would please God (!) to have the child killed and to have obedience shown in this way; that God expects followers to respect a God who would be pleased to have an innocent child killed for no better reason than this; and that God would without good reason subject an innocent child to a terrifying ordeal.

About Abraham, it says that he had respect for such a God to the extent that he would, on the basis of such a capricious order, kill an innocent child.  And that is quite apart from the point that Abraham, as a human being with no more than our capacities for perception and reasoning, could not have had any reasonable basis for believing in the existence of a God who would have such expectations or issue such an order, or for believing that such an order had actually been issued to him.

Even if Abraham had seen a great face in the sky speaking to him and had heard the words spoken, it would have been more reasonable for him to believe this was a dream or hallucination than to believe that a God, conceived of as good, would have such expectations and would issue such an order.  And even if Abraham was justified in believing that what he saw and heard was not a dream or hallucination, the reasonable conclusion for him to reach would have been that this supernatural phenomenon was a manifestation of evil not of good.

          It’s been suggested that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the child he loved is admirable.  But that assumes Isaac was Abraham’s to sacrifice; whereas in truth no person belongs to another in that way.  It has also been suggested that killing an innocent child is not wrong if God has commanded it.  But that assumes it is God’s command that makes things right or wrong; whereas, as I have argued, there would be good moral reasons to obey God’s commands only if morality had force independently of God’s commands.  And this suggestion also ignores the point that human beings only have their perception and their reasoning to ascertain whether there is a God and if so what its commands are; and reason is strongly against there being a God who would issue such commands.

          So this story is about a God unworthy of respect, and an Abraham who was prepared to do something grossly immoral, to kill an innocent child, for no good reason that he could have apprehended.  And it has the potential to inspire great evil in its message, apparently accepted by some people today, that it is OK to kill innocent people if you believe God has told you to.

 

The Passover

Another story in the Old Testament (not referred to by Dawkins) recounts how God killed all the firstborn children of a group whose ruler Pharaoh was oppressing the Israelites, in order to induce Pharaoh to free them.

          In Exodus 11, Moses predicts that God would kill all the firstborn of Egypt, ‘from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill.’  Exodus 12 tells of how God went ahead and did this, avoiding killing any Israelites by passing over houses where blood had been placed on the lintel and the two side posts.  The morality of the God depicted in this Passover story, who kills children (including the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill) to put pressure on a leader to achieve a worthy political outcome, seems no different from the morality of suicide bombers and other Islamist terrorists.

          It’s been said that what God did was a last resort, to free good people from enslavement by bad people, after the Egyptians had been given every chance to act on less extreme incentives.  But suicide bombers regard their objectives similarly, and what is most appalling about them is not their objectives, but their targeting of innocent and powerless people, people like the firstborn of the maidservant behind the mill.  And this attempted justification of what God is said to have done in the Passover story confirms the implication from the story that Christians and Jews, like the Israelites, are good, with God on their side and with just causes against bad people, causes for which it must surely be right to act as God acted.

          It’s also been said that God moves in mysterious ways, and we should not presume to judge God.  But God (accepting this concept) gave us the ability to reason about moral issues; and as I said earlier, we cannot assume the Bible is inspired by God.  The fact that the Bible, which is supposed to enlighten us on moral issues, contains messages so plainly contrary to reasonable morality, is a powerful reason for thinking its vision of God is in places a flawed one, created by fallible human beings.

 

The Promised Land

A further story in the Old Testament (referred to by Dawkins at pp247-48) recounts how the one true God, who lovingly created all of humankind, favoured one group of human beings over others to the extent of giving the favoured group land, and instructing them to slaughter the people who previously occupied it.  Deuteronomy 20 recounts God’s instructions to the Israelites on what to do when they defeat cities.  In the case of cities that are not in the land God has given them, they are to kill all the men and take for themselves the women and children; and in the case of cities that are in the land God has given them, they are to kill everyone.  Joshua 6: 20-21 recounts that when Joshua and his followers took Jericho, they ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword,’ as instructed by God.

The fighting of a war of aggression because of a belief that God authorised it is bad enough; but the subsequent killing of the defeated people is simply appalling.  The morality of the God of these passages seems no different from the morality of the Serb ‘ethnic cleansers’ in Srebrenica (in those cases where only the men are to be slaughtered), or the Nazis of the Holocaust (in those cases where everyone is to be slaughtered).

It’s been said that the people of Jericho were evil and could not be permitted to corrupt the Israelites; but this is just what Serb ethnic cleansers and Nazis would say.  There’s no evidence to suggest the people of Jericho were any worse than any other group of people at the time, much less evidence that could justify the slaughter of every man, woman and child.  And again, this attempted justification confirms the implication that we are good and they are evil, so these are things we may do to them but they must not do to us.

 

Heaven and Hell

The New Testament does not contain stories such as these, and it presents Jesus as giving central importance to caring about other human beings, not just one’s friends but also one’s enemies.  This seems to me wholly admirable.

But Jesus is presented by the Bible as a continuation of the revelation of the divine contained in the Old Testament, and as so regarding himself, thus associating him with the view of God exemplified by these stories.  For example, the Bible presents the Last Supper as a celebration of the Passover, suggesting that Jesus condoned the killing of children to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites.  And there are other aspects of the Bible’s account of Jesus that seem to me to be morally abhorrent, in particular his endorsement of a stark view of heaven and hell, according to which all humankind would be separated into two groups, the sheep destined for ‘life eternal’ and the goats for ‘everlasting punishment’ (Matthew 25: 31-46).

I think it’s obvious there is a continuous spectrum of human character, from very good to very bad, with most of us somewhere in the middle.  The idea that a line would be drawn, so that those just on one side would be destined for eternal bliss, and those just on the other side would be destined for eternal suffering, seems arbitrary, unjust and abhorrent.  And if it is said that the criterion is not merit but faith in Jesus, this would be worse, because there are good and honest reasons for not having that faith and many persons won’t have had the slightest opportunity to have that faith.  And all this is quite apart from the powerful considerations (1) that where one ends up on any spectrum of merit is enormously influenced by genes and environment, even if, as I do believe, we have some capacity through free will to modify our handicaps in life; and (2) that this stark scheme of heaven and hell has no intelligible place for infants and the mentally ill.

I’m not saying here that it must be unreasonable to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus.  What I am saying is that the Bible’s account of Jesus is in places discredited by immoral and unjust ideas from both the Old and New Testaments.

 

So What?

One response to all this may be to ask what does it matter.  Christians and Jews do not support genocide.  They do not demonstrate violently when their religion is said to be violent, they do not advocate terrorism or the slaying of infidels, they do not condone the killing of apostates.

          Well, I think it matters very much.  I think it’s reasonable to believe that failure of Christians and Jews to repudiate the morality of these stories can have significant consequences, both in their own conduct and in holding back their challenge to evil beliefs derived from Islam.  It is undeniable that moral beliefs influence conduct, and it’s reasonable to think that beliefs that demonise the enemy and justify extreme violence against the enemy contribute to violence in the world.

The truly worrying thing about fundamentalist Christians and Jews is not that they believe things happened that did not happen, like the Flood or the walls of Jericho tumbling down, but that their beliefs must mean they admire the God portrayed in these stories and the morality of that God.  And this worry applies with similar force to those Christians and Jews who do not believe in the literal truth of these stories, but nevertheless believe them to have a kind of truth in telling us about the nature of God and God’s dealings with human beings, and about morality.

I was particularly struck by the reference in The God Delusion (pp255-57) to a study carried out by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. In this study, reported in 1966, he presented Joshua 6:20-21 to 1,066 Israeli school children, aged 8-14, across a broad spectrum of Israeli social and economic classes.  He asked them the question ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’   Their answers were categorized as follows: ‘”A” means total approval, “B” means partial approval or disapproval, and “C” means total disapproval.’   66% of responses were ‘A’, 8% ‘B’, and 26% ‘C’.  The ‘A’ group made comments such as that ‘In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.’  Even the disapproving groups included comments such as that ‘I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.’
          This is just one study, carried out four decades ago.  But it has strong implications about the beliefs of the adults who influenced these children, and who might not themselves have given such frank expression to their views; and my search of the Internet has disclosed no reference suggesting error by Tamarin, or any different results obtained in more recent studies.

          It is right for Christians and Jews to condemn genocide and terrorism.  But I suggest that to be consistent they should, with no ifs or buts, squarely acknowledge the following eight statements:

(1)  It would have been wrong for God to order Abraham to kill his son, as the Bible says He did.

(2)  It would have been wrong for Abraham to set about doing so.

(3)  It is wrong to kill an innocent person because you believe God has told you to.

(4)  It would have been wrong for God to kill children to induce Pharaoh to release the Israelites.  (It would have been terrorism.)

(5)  It would have been wrong for God to order the Israelites to kill all occupants of defeated cities.  (It would have been to order genocide.)

(6)  It would have been wrong for Joshua and his followers to kill all occupants of Jericho.  (It would have been genocide.)

(7)  If Jesus believed that God had killed children to induce Pharaoh to release the Israelites, it would have been wrong for him to celebrate the Passover.  (It would have been to condone terrorism.)

(8)  The Bible stories of Abraham and Isaac, the Passover and the battle of Jericho were written by fallible human beings and convey wrong messages about God and morality.

I have very rarely heard even moderate Christians or Jews acknowledge these things.  If they are not prepared to do so, then their condemnation of genocide and Islamist terrorism involves double standards, which may affect their conduct in one way or another.  But if they would acknowledge them, that could bring closer a time when reasonable adherents of all religions, including Islam, condemn immoral ideas associated with all religions, including those derived from the Koran.  And that would leave those Islamists who advocate terrorism, the killing of infidels and the killing of apostates as an exposed and discredited minority.

I appreciate there is a great deal of theological writing on the issues I have raised; but I don’t believe this either satisfies or obviates the need for frank admission, along the lines of my eight statements, of the immorality in what is actually written in the Bible.

          The God Delusion has not made me an atheist, as Dawkins may have wished.  But it has made me ponder and articulate these ideas; and in my judgment, on balance, Dawkins is on the side of the angels in the quest for a more peaceful world.

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[1]   David Hodgson is the author of two philosophical books published by Oxford University Press, Consequences of Utilitarianism (1967) and The Mind Matters (1991), and he is a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.  A selection of his published philosophical articles can be found at http://users.tpg.com.au/raeda.